National caricatures

On January 19 on the op-ed page of the NYT, the British writer and collector of miscellany (“curator of knowledge”) Ben Schott assembled a huge “glossary of arcane national caricatures from writers curiously fascinated with difference” (“Vive la Différence”). Some of these differences are specifically linguistic ones. A few items:

(Robert Southey) Ours is a noble language, a beautiful language. I can tolerate a GERMANISM for family’s sake; but he who uses a LATIN or a FRENCH phrase where a pure old ENGLISH word does as well out to be hung, drawn and quartered for high treason against his mother tongue.

Oh dear, the verb quarter and the noun treason both came into English through Anglo-Norman, that is, from French.

(attr. to George Gascoigne) The most ancient ENGLISH words are of one-syllable, so that the more monosyllables that you use the truer ENGLISHMAN you shall seem, and the less you shall smell of the inkhorn.

Well, he could have said “one-syllable words” instead of the pentasyllabic “monosyllables” and avoided the smell of the inkhorn.

(Karl Gutzkow) The ENGLISH tongue is as natural as passion itself. FRENCH is the language of conversation, of mutual understanding and amiable persuasion. The GERMAN language, though our poets find in it a free stream of astounding beauty, is yet far too abstract for ordinary purposes; it expresses nothing right out, is full of paraphrases, and is far too much a curial language to be all the orator requires.

Here it becomes clear that this passage, along with most of the others in fact, is about high culture; ordinary Germans have been getting along with their language just fine “for ordinary purposes” for a very long time.

My patience ran out pretty quickly.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: